There are a lot of predictions for the end of Mad Men floating around right now, and many of them are based on scrutinizing past episodes for clues as to the future. But there’s one thing that none of these theories take into account, in light of Sunday night’s episode.
Betty is dead.
That may not immediately trigger any thoughts to you as it relates to Don Draper, but consider this: He has three kids. Sally may be able to live on her own in boarding school, but Don couldn’t expect Henry Francis to support Don’s two boys. Henry may be more of a father to them than Don at this point, but step-dads aren’t granted custody of children in the 1970s.
That means that Don is not on his own. He can’t just settle down in Topeka or Wichita or even Los Angeles and live the rest of his life on the fortune he’s made from McCann Erickson. He has three kids to support, he left behind at least a million by leaving McCann, and, because of his non-compete agreement, he can’t work in advertising in the United States for four more years. And he’s not going to leave his kids behind. He may be travelling across the United States, but he still cares enough about his children to check in with them (as you recall in Sunday night’s episode, he called Sally and said he’d be calling the boys, afterwards).
But we also know this about Don Draper: He’s headed for a rebirth of some sort. That writing is clearly on the wall. He’s shed his Don Draper personae. He’s given up the job. But he can’t just go back to being Dick Whitman. As far as the United States government is concerned, Dick Whitman is dead. Admitting to being Dick Whitman would be tantamount to admitting to fraud. Or identity theft. Or something bigger (we’re dealing with the military here, after all).
So, Don has three kids. He has no wife to take care of them. He has no career in advertising, and he can’t continue working that career. He can’t go back to being “Dick Whitman.” So, what’s left for him?
Let’s back up just a moment. Matthew Weiner was on the Nerdist podcast last week, and I can’t shake one thing he really stressed in talking about Mad Men. He said he does not do symbolism. He was very clear about that. He also said that he does not troll viewers. So, when the flight attendant spilled wine on the white carpet earlier this season, he said there was no symbolic meaning to that. The only thing it demonstrated, he said, is that Don didn’t care about his apartment enough to care that wine was spilled on it. There was nothing deeper to it; Weiner doesn’t trade in symbolism.
There’s another thing that Weiner has said about the finale: He said that it could be “a disaster.” He said that he’s paved the way for a “mixed review,” and that he told his wife and a few writers about the ending of the series years ago, and they suggested it might be “a disaster.”
But in the Nerdist podcast where he said that he doesn’t deal in symbolism, he did say that he likes to “plant” clues and that he takes the series “one episode at a time.” So, based on that, based on the cycle of rebirth, based on the fact that he still has three kids to raise and a non-compete that will keep him out of advertising in America, and the fact that Weiner likes to “plant” clues, where does that leave Don Draper?
Remember how Don gave a long, lingering almost revelatory look at a woman beside the pool in the last episode of Mad Men?
There was also a very slow linger on the book the woman was reading:
The Woman of Rome. Was that a plant?
What about the other book he was reading?
That book is about “The Don,” who hails from Sicily, outside of Italy.
What else happened in the episode? Sally said she was going to Madrid. Don said he wanted to go to Madrid. Italy at least put him close to Madrid. Close to Sally.
Why would Italy make sense for Don? Because the noncompete wouldn’t restrict him from working in Italy. And did you know that two American ad agencies — J. Walter Thompson and McCann Erickson — played a large role in influencing advertising in Italy in the 1970s? It’s well suited to his talents. It’s a place where he can start all over. It’s a place where he can raise his kids, while being close to Sally.
I know it sounds suspect, and it’s definitely the kind of ending that would get “mixed reviews,” and that some might consider a “disaster.” But it also allows him to start all over in another place, and it’s not like the endings for the other characters — Betty, Joan, and Pete — were predictable. You couldn’t really read the tea leaves of seven seasons of Mad Men and figure out exactly how it would end for those characters.
It’s not completely out of left field, either. There have been a lot of callbacks this season to earlier seasons, earlier episodes, but one that hasn’t been called back to yet is “Souvenir,” where Betty and Don took a trip to Italy. Rome is actually the last place that Betty and Don visited together. The last time they were happy together before they got a divorce. Don pretended to be a tourist and picked up Betty, and they were madly in love there. For a night, at least.
In that third season episode, Betty and Don had one of the most romantic days of their marriages, and when they returned, Betty was glum again because, she professed to Don, she wanted to live somewhere else. In Rome (where she also spoke perfect Italian). All Don could offer her, however, was a Colosseum charm for her bracelet.
She was heartbroken.
“We’ll go away again,” Don told Betty. “You know we will.”
But they never did.
Maybe Betty’s death recalls that happy place for Don, and maybe that’s where he takes his kids, to a place that their mother loved. Where he was happy with Betty. Where he could continue to work. Not for nothing, but he’s still got a friend in Conrad Hilton, the man who set him up with the Rome vacation. At the end of Season 3, McCann Erickson bought out the old version of Sterling Cooper (which was then owned by PPL), which forced Roger, Don and Bert to form another ad firm to avoid working for McCann. Conrad Hilton decided to move his business to avoid working with McCann Erickson. That meant Don was going to lose the Hilton account. Don threw a bit of a fit, but in the end, the last thing Connie Hilton said to Don Draper was, “Some other time, we’ll try again.”
Maybe now is a good time to “try again,” with the first hotel chain in America with an international presence.